Storytelling is more than a vocation for Phillip Whiteman Jr. He says it’s a way of life.
He was raised in Lame Deer, Montana, and has been a grass dancer since childhood, traveling from the pow wow arena to Broadway to Wild West shows to President Clinton’s inauguration as a dancer. But he says storytelling is “deeply rooted in who he is.”
Whiteman, a member of the Northern Cheyenne nation, will bring his traditional storytelling to the 40th Denver March Powwow, March 21 to 23. Whiteman and his family have been involved with the Denver pow wow since its inception in the 1970s. His father, the late Phillip Whiteman Sr., was part of the Northern Cheyenne Chiefs of the Council of 44 and was the drum-keeper for the Chief Society. His drum group, the Lame Deer Singers, attended Denver’s first pow wow gatherings four decades ago. Phillip was the first recording artist for Indian Records.
Whiteman’s mother, the late Florence Whiteman, was the last Warrior Woman of the Elk Scraper Society. She also was the last Cheyenne woman to be married for a bride price of four horses, in a traditional ceremony at age 14.
“Both of my parents played significant roles with the Northern Cheyenne, and my grandparents on both sides were chiefs and leaders at the Battle of the Little Bighorn,” Whiteman said. “Now, I take on these roles. I grew up around horses, pow wows, traditional culture.… I was destined to fulfill these roles to the teachings of my parents and grandparents.”
Whiteman remains active with his father’s drum group, now renamed Phillip Whiteman Generation, and together with his partner, Lynette Two Bulls, he released a CD, Spirit Seeker.
Whiteman will bring such “stories and songs for the spirit” to Denver, where listeners will take part an ancient oral tradition that shares wisdom about the horse, the drum, the flute, grass dancing and life.
“We tell stories that are about celebrating life and facing adversity,” he said. “These are encouraging, empowering stories. And the people, from youngest to oldest, come to listen as we tell our stories through dancing, through singing, through word. The stories create sensitivity and integrity.” The Denver Powwow is important to Whiteman because it celebrates diversity—among Native nations and between Native and non-Native peoples.
“All nations come together in this one place,” he said over the phone. “And through diversity, we create unity. The storytelling portion is very important, because through our stories we can create bridges and welcome all colors and all nations. We create that bond, that unity, that shows we are all connected.”
With this sense of connectedness in mind, Whiteman founded the Phillip Whiteman Jr. “Medicine Wheel Model to Natural Horsemanship,” which is a holistic Native approach to working with and training horses. And he and Two Bulls created the nonprofit Yellow Bird, an affiliate of Seventh Generation Fund, and its Fort Robinson Outbreak Spiritual Run, a 400-mile run from Fort Robinson, Nebraska, to Busby, Montana, that takes place in the frigid heart of a Great Plains winter.
The annual run honors the Northern Cheyenne who escaped Fort Robinson in January 1879. Although many escapees were killed, a few survivors returned to their homeland in southeastern Montana’s Powder River country, now home to the Northern Cheyenne reservation.
“With the run, we remind many youth that it’s up to them to reclaim and reconnect to who they are,” Whiteman said. “We have a crisis of Mother Earth right now, of her land, air and water,” he said. “To protect her, we need to reclaim our culture, our language and our identity. Our children are hungry for knowledge and a sense of connection. We are in a perfect place today to return back to oneness… to start our journey home.”
Phillip Whiteman Jr. and Apsaalooke storyteller Christian Takes Gun Parrish, also known as Supaman, will be performing at the top of the hour on March 21, 22 and 23 in the Denver Coliseum’s lower-foyer Denver Press Room. Whiteman also will release his new storytelling and song CD at the Denver March Powwow.